On a recent Thursday at around midday, I saw a group of kids, not more than 15, who by their size appeared to be in nursery school.
The little boys and girls in pink checked shirts and grey pair of shorts were clustered in front of televisions on display.
They were pointing at a monkey swinging on the screens. They sighed in awe when they saw the close-up shots of ants. Around them were aisles after aisles full of new products for sale.
When I saw them, I thought: “Wow, these kids are out shopping at this hour … shouldn’t they be in class?”
However, unknown to me they were in class. Their teacher had brought her class on a trip to a SUPERMARKET.
Let that sink in.
That one place that we dash into quickly to get a few things was their location for an educational trip.
Their teacher enthusiastically showed them why the many TVs in different sizes were on the shelves and why they had price tags on them. And that was not all; she was also describing to these young children why certain aisles were labelled the way they were.
Again, a trip to a supermarket.
It stood out for me because school excursions during my primary school days were always out of town, probably to a beach or an agricultural institution or to the zoo or the airport – what I would now consider ‘educational’. A supermarket, in my view, was the least educational place for any learner.
But I was wrong.
From the looks of things and by the teacher’s thorough explanation of what happened here, you could tell this was an important trip.
The supermarket is in Mathare North. Mathare in Kenya is an area known for slums (second to Kibera), violence and more slums. In fact a quick search on Google shows you that the extent of poverty here is on another level.
Indeed it is true. I know, I live here.
The area has informal settlements popping up all over. Every few hundred metres you are bound to find a burst sewer that flows into water pipes, and food vendors. You will see clinics and health centres competing for space with bars and entertainment joints. You will see stalls lined up, trying to attract potential customers with their music, sales pitches or adverts.
There are car washes, colourful matatus (public taxis) and happy children playing on the road side. There are high-rise houses so close to each other that if one tenant has a cold, the neighbour next door would probably pick it up. That close. There are electricity wires in meshes swaying and scrapping the air in the Mathare skies.
Each day as I get into a matatu to town, I pass school children who, despite their torn socks and faded uniforms, carry paper bags full of books as they head to class. I see little boys and girls bracing the morning chill to get to school.
It was only when l I bumped into the class on this trip that I realised their lessons were both in and out of the classrooms.
I deduced that their teacher wanted to show them the available possibilities amidst the sea of poverty they knew. There was such a high level of want that these young minds would look forward to attending class the next day, pegged on the possibility of stepping into a supermarket that they either passed by every morning or whose branded paper bags they saw on the streets.
Seeing these inquisitive children asking why the soaps were put away from the bread and maize flour made me realise that while this visit to the supermarket was ordinary to me, it was probably a first for these little leaders.
You could see the admiration in their eyes as shoppers carried items passed them. It hit me that this trip was the opening of new chapters in these children’s lives. That beyond the mire of life in a slum town as they know it, there was so much more available. So much variety was presented to these kids but circumstances had hindered them from reaching out to them.
I saw this and I was challenged to take a fresher look at the things I have and assume exist for everyone else.
Later, the children filed past the teller and each was given a lollipop on their way out. Some of them began to undo the lollipop wrappers in glee. Then I noticed one who looked at his sweet for a while and then simply put it into his shirt pocket, stretched out his palm and joined his hand to complete a chain of little hands and glossy excited eyes.
Once their lesson for the day was over, they streamed out with their teacher.
Eunice Kilonzo is a print journalist and storyteller who tells tales on development, feminism and health. Connect with her on Twitter: @Eunicekkilonzo
Lesotho is an interesting place to be in at the moment. At the end of August, we made headlines worldwide, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. The news had nothing to do with the country’s many unique and positive qualities. There was no mention of natural beauty, of Basotho culture, or of the many exciting initiatives that a host of organisations and individuals in the country are working hard on.
Instead, it focused on the country’s current political mess. An apparent attempted military ‘coup’ took place, and the Prime Minister fled to South Africa. Tom Thabane is back in the country now, but political tensions remain high, with no clear resolutions in sight. Everyday life continues, but people are tense, confused, and many fear a repeat of the political violence that the country experienced in 1998.
In the midst of this uncertainty and political instability, the weekend of 5 – 7 September saw the return of Ba re e ne re Literature Festival, the only event of its kind in Lesotho, founded in 2011 by the late Liepollo Rantekoa, a young Mosotho literary enthusiast who passed away in a tragic car accident in 2012.
Inspired by Rantekoa’s vision of a movement that would reignite a culture of reading and writing in Lesotho, and especially an appreciation of Sesotho language and literature, a group of her friends and family have come together and are continuing with the work she began.
This year, a number of writers from outside Lesotho were invited to take part in the festival. These included South African novelist Niq Mhlongo, Nigerian/Barbadian writer Yewande Omotoso, and Namibian poet Keamogetsi Molapong. Cape Town-based Chimurenga Magazine jumped on board as the event’s official partner. International authors were joined by a number of writers from Lesotho, including Mpho Makara, Teboho Rantsoabe and Patrick Bereng.
The festival’s opening ceremony took place at the same time that a political march was held through the centre of Maseru. Night-time events were cancelled in the face of potential security threats. But despite these challenges, people of all ages came out to enjoy the day-time events, which featured a vibrant combination of live music, poetry readings, storytelling performances and discussions with authors.
Nobody ignored the political situation in the country. On the contrary, the challenges that Lesotho currently faces became a crucial talking point, as guests and participants spoke of the role that artists, writers and literature can play in times such as these. The final event of the second day of the festival saw people of all ages sitting in a tight circle around a small computer screen, laughing together at jokes told by renowned South African author Zakes Mda (addressed by the audience as ‘Ntate Zakes’) who, although unable to be present in person, joined the festival via Skype.
Mda spoke with strength and encouragement to the professional and aspirant writers in the room: “You writers will always play a critical role in the country. Artists can be catalysts for change.”
Later, Mhlongo commented: “The festival happened at the right time to bring people together, to give them the chance to express themselves, to express their frustrations, and to interact with others. Writers can go beyond the boundaries of political and cultural divisions. Writers can liberate, especially in times of turmoil like this.”
Teboho Moekoa, a local artist, performed a poem that spoke blatantly and scathingly about Lesotho’s current politics: “My people seem mentally possessed / by the same system that keeps them suppressed / And every time they protest / It’s the voter that the voted cannot respect…”
“We are black youth trying to find our position in the system, trying to find definitions that have already been defined for us,” said Moekoa. “It’s very important that something like this is happening in Lesotho. We don’t have a platform here, and this festival provides that platform.”
Intelligent and outspoken writing, however, can only be truly powerful if it is widely read. In a country with one of Africa’s highest literacy rates (over 90% amongst women, according to Unesco), the serious lack of a reading culture in Lesotho was a prominent topic of discussion. Festival director Lineo Segoete addressed the issue directly: “People in Lesotho have developed an attitude that reading is only important for school, without realising that successful people are avid readers. We want people to learn the importance of reading for pleasure, of reading to self-educate. We are challenging everyone to get back to reading.”
Questions surrounding identity, language and culture permeated the weekend. Mosotho author Mpho Makara spoke of her decision to only write in Sesotho, but nonetheless encouraged young writers to abandon false notions of ‘pure’ Sesotho: “Language cannot afford to stand still. English borrows words from other languages. In the same way, we can steal from English and make Sesotho grow. Write in the Sesotho you know, in the Sesotho you speak every day.”
Mhlongo offered a different take on the language debate. Mhlongo chooses to write his novels in English, and argued that writers should be allowed to write in whatever language they feel comfortable in: “Storytelling doesn’t have a language. It’s like music. The message is the most important thing. Whatever the language, the important thing is to preserve culture. I believe that you can write about your culture in English.”
The focus of day three of the festival shifted to more practical issues, with the authors discussing writing techniques, and sharing tips and advice with the audience.
“The hunger here is evident,” remarked Mhlongo when I chatted with him later. “There’s an obvious interest in writing. School kids filled the hall. A filled hall is a rare thing in literary events!”
Addressing the audience directly, he urged the young writers in the room: “You in Lesotho need to write about your challenges. I hope that after this we are going to see novels and short stories coming from Lesotho.”
Ba re e ne re boomed with engagement, enthusiasm and positivity. The energy was palpable. Soon, we hope, the eyes of the world will turn to Lesotho for the right reasons.
Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.
I land in Johannesburg for the third time in four years. I drive into the city guided by faint memory and intuition. I drive carefully but still I end up taking a wrong turn and land in the middle of town, on Main Street. Two things then seem clear: The first – there aren’t any white people on the streets. However, this is inaccurate; I look harder and find a single, tall white man exiting a mechanic’s shop. He has dropped off his Audi and is walking across the street towards a coffee shop. Though the abolishment of apartheid happened 20 years ago, downtown Johannesburg’s colour palette has changed, but not in the way one would have predicted.
The second: There is a plethora of big, fat, abandoned buildings, ten stories and higher, each of them marked by broken windows, barred doors, and bricked up floors. They are beautiful, hallowed objects left behind by time and a history long forgotten. From art deco to modernist and post-modernist architectural treasures, they are spread out sporadically from block to block, colour-less. Witnessing these human structures, one is reminded of post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds popular in science fiction films and literature. Yet this is our world today, one in which thousands of people, most of them black citizens from all over Africa, live on the streets surrounded by squalor, in a city famous for its gold and diamond trade. Many of these individuals who migrate south hope to escape the hostility of war torn countries and encounter instead, a different type of war zone in Johannesburg.
Fascinated by how the city seems to have abandoned these buildings just like it has some of its population, I can not imagine that, almost six weeks later, I would find myself transported from the roof of one of these dilapidated buildings to a jail cell in Johannesburg’s central police station. The jail cell – with its many barred, fenced, and frosted glass windows–made me feel helpless. By contrast, the abandoned buildings – where most windows are broken or missing altogether-made my team and I feel an empowerment and awareness that vibrated with possibility.
Consider windowless buildings. Bleeding and gutted buildings. Consider a system in which government and privately owned buildings are left uncared for from block to block throughout the heart of a city. If the broken windows theory prescribes a zero tolerance policy for even minor damage to property, how can entire structures be abandoned, left to rot, without devastating effects on those who can not afford to move to other neighborhoods?
It was back in 1982 that the broken window theory was first introduced by social scientists Wilson & Kelling. They asked their audience to consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows were not repaired, vandals would likely break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and – if it was unoccupied – perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Chapter two, section 26 of the Constitution of South Africa states that “Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.” With so many evictions happening due to Mayor Park Tau’s “Operation Clean Sweep” and with thousands of people in the inner city with no place to live, how can we go on ignoring all of these buildings that could be renovated as potential homes? “Demolition by decay” – as it is referred to in the blogosphere – still plagues the city centre today. The wickedness of some owners is only matched by the sheer indifference of the municipality, taking no action, even when owed millions of rand in rates.
As I keep thinking of these still beautiful buildings, I speak to friends of mine, local artists, about turning them into “Living Sculptures” so that the people of Johannesburg are reminded of their presence and the injustice they embody.Maybe we could highlight the buildings? Maybe we could paint them hot-pink? From what I had observed in Jozi’s urban environment, there is not much of that colour anywhere… no South African brands seemed to use this colour and therefore it would be easy to create new associations in Johannesburg’s cultural landscape. The artists, and most people who learned about the project in the following weeks, were excited about the idea and “valued the style, urgency, underground stealth, surprise approach and the overall intention” of the project.
It is not until later, amongst painters, photographers, and print-makers that we decide on the style of painting: we will pour the paint from the top of the chosen dilapidated building first. Then we will go down floor by floor and collectively decide which windows will “bleed out.” We are excited by the notion that the buildings would appear to be crying, bleeding, leaking colour. The colour and medium of choice will take the form of more than 1000 litres of hot-pink, water-soluble paint.
Once the idea is solidified, we spread the word over a period of three weeks. More than thirty local creative agents of all colours and creeds join our nightly excursions to help paint and document our process. Friends invite friends. All show up after midnight wearing their old clothes, their curiosity, and their courage. We start in the last week of June and finish in the first week of August.
We study the buildings during the daytime: we draw up floor plans, circulation patterns, and check the finishes on floors and walls – mostly scattered debris. Then, at the agreed-upon early morning hour, we gather and travel downtown with our buckets of paint and our ladders. The big challenge with most of our buildings is gaining entry to the second floor – once inside, we usually have access to the rest of the building. We walk up to the roof, and prepare our tools, pouring the pink paint slowly and evenly from top to bottom. As much work as could be done in preparation, we never have control over how the paint will actually adhere to each building. The speed and texture always varies, and it is always exciting to gaze upon the end result the following morning.
It is not until we have found a comfortable pattern, meeting and working together while most of the city is asleep, that the head of security of our seventh highlighted building approaches us and calls the police. He wants to know what we are doing and why were doing it. From our pink stained attire, everyone could easily assume that we are responsible for the buildings that have been dressed in pink in the previous weeks.
As the leader of this project, I feel it is my duty to take care of whatever charges may come up and asked my fellow artists and activists to leave the scene. The police ask me to follow them to the station, along with the security guard, to talk to the colonel. Once there, I realise that I have no phone, no identification, and no way out.
At first, he claims that he could not let me go because I have no way to identify myself. Sometime after three in the morning they find a case number for a “malicious destruction of property” that had been pressed the previous week for one of our transformed buildings. With the case in hand, I am booked into Johannesburg’s central police station as a suspect. Feeling completely isolated and alone, one question comes to my mind: “what is more unjust: to allow buildings to decay and create an atmosphere that permeates of fear, or to use colour to create a conversation about how we can all be a part of bringing said buildings back to life?” And also, aren’t these buildings, a vital part of the fabric of the city of Johannesburg, all of our responsibility?
There are no white people to be found in the police station either. Again, this is inaccurate, as the colonel who deals with my case, pale and blonde haired, does so in a heavy Afrikaans accent. Everyone else in the prison, from the guards to the captives, range in colour from dark-chocolate to dark-caramel. My own colouring, pale-olive by comparison, is so striking to the rest of the population that, in the morning, one of the janitors come into my cell and inquire about why I am there. He claims that I look “out of place.” Even earlier, when I was being admitted, the constable looked up from her form and asked me if I was Black, Coloured, Indian/Asian or White. I looked back at her responding that I am not any of those things. “I am Latin American, Hispanic.” Looking back down and speaking sharply she responded, “We can just say you are White.”
Some parts of the prison feel as neglected and dilapidated as the buildings that I have been studying for weeks. Buildings like the CNA, Shakespeare House and New Kempsey – a full city block of historical Art Deco buildings, bricked up and left to crumble as rain pelts through the broken windows – are not that different from this local police station, and its inhabitants are often the very same hopeless people who sit and walk around the city’s Central Business District.
Painting is a way for us to challenge our colour-blindness to these issues. By highlighting these facades in pink, we have generated important dialogue and debate among the denizens of Johannesburg. We hope that these conversations will in turn, be a call to action. The project we started is ongoing and more buildings will be painted soon. Just like some of the legacy of apartheid, these buildings may be abandoned, but they are still standing. Now more than ever we are responsible for being aware of colour – whether it be in the black and white of race, or the pink of social injustice.
Yazmany Arboleda is a New York-based Colombian-American artist who lectures internationally on the power of art in public space. He is the Creative Director of MIT’s ENGAGE program as well as The Brooklyn Cottage. His work has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, UK’s Guardian, Fast Company, and Reuters. In 2013, he was named one of Good Magazine’s 100 People Making Our World Better.
The work of South African costumer and puppet maker Macdonald Mfolo caught our eye after a recent interview with Another Africa highlighted the large scale puppets he created as part of the collaborative fashion and photography exhibition NOT x Chris Saunders. The cross-cultural project fuses the work of South African artisans and designers together with that of Jenny Lai, a New York-based experimental womenswear designer, and Chris Saunders, a photojournalist living and working in Johannesburg. The exhibition puts a spotlight on the social and cultural climates that creatives from New York and South Africa find themselves inhabiting while showcasing the viability of global collaborations in this digital age.
Mfolo, who is based in the Orange Farm township and picked up his puppet-making skills a few years ago as part of the production crew on the Pale Ya Rona Carnival, primarily works as a costume designer for the Pantsula dance group Real Action Pantsula. His full-bodied puppets are put together using papier-mâché and re-purposed materials such as discarded cement bags salvaged from construction sites and plastic bottles from a nearby recycling depot. Mfolo’s collaboration with Lai takes the vibrant Pantsula aesthetic and blends it with Lai’s avant-garde apparel for a surreal visual experience captured through Saunders’ lens and channeled through the movements of South African performance artist Manthe Ribane, who wears the puppet suits.
Though his puppet-making work currently exists only within the sphere of performance, Mfolo’s goals are and always have been community-oriented. “I want to create a skills college,” he told Another Africa. “I think skills development needs to be more emphasised in South Africa. We export a lot of things instead of creating them here.” In 2005, he established Farmland Production, a free workshop-based initiative that aims to empower local women and youth by teaching basic sewing skills that would help the community to become more self-sufficient. In addition to this, Mfolo’s organisation produces uniforms for local schools, and spearheads talent showcases and dance competitions. Read the full interview to learn more about the emerging designer.
Two years ago, a floating school in Lagos’s ‘floating’ slum of Makoko was labelled as ‘illegal’ by authorities who then threatened to demolish it. This year the school, which is the brainchild of Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, was nominated for the London-based Design Museum’s Design of the Year award.
Adeyemi is the founder of NLE, a design and architecture company focused on creating sustainable buildings in developing regions. His innovative design came about after he had had several discussions with Makoko residents about how to resolve the environmental issues – such as flooding – that concerned the local community. He and his team came up with a prototype for a floating building, which is now the Makoko Floating School.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of Makokos all over Africa,” Adeyemi says. “We cannot simply displace this population; it’s important to think about how to develop them, how to create enabling environments for them to thrive, to improve the sanitation conditions, to provide the infrastructure, schools and hospitals to make it a healthy place.
“My belief is that in developing Africa we need to find solutions that can be developed by the grassroots, through the grassroots, and achieve the same level of significance as we have on the high-end projects.”
Read more about the construction of Makoko Floating School
Now, in a new documentary series by Al Jazeera that looks at unconventional pioneers in the architecture industry, Adeyemi’s floating school is brought to life in the episode “Working On Water”, directed by award-winning South African filmmaker Riaan Hendricks. Launched on August 18, the six-part Rebel Architecture series will air every Monday through to September 22.
Dynamic Africa is a curated multimedia blog focused on all facets of African cultures, African history, and the lives and experiences of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora – past and present. Visit the blog and connect with the curator, Funke Makinwa, on Twitter.